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He Would Have Changed China

Zhao Ziyang: Ruanjinzhong de tanhua (Captive Conversations)

by Zong Fengming
Hong Kong: Kaifang, 399 pp., HK$98

In trying to make sense of their country’s turbulent modern history, Chinese intellectuals sometimes resort to counterfactual speculation. How might things have been different if one or another accidental event had happened differently? For decades it was a sort of parlor game to guess how long the great writer Lu Xun, who died in 1936 possessing a keen eye for hypocrisy and a stiletto wit, and whom Mao Zedong praised in 1942 as “the bravest, most correct national hero,” could have survived in Maoland had he lived beyond 1949. Eight years, most people said. If he had somehow managed to avoid prison until 1957, the Anti-Rightist Campaign of that year surely would have got him.1 Harder to fathom is a question like what would have happened in China if Mao Yichang and Wen Qimei, parents of Mao Zedong, had lived apart in the spring of 1893, when Mao was conceived.

Zong Fengming’s new book, Zhao Ziyang: Captive Conversations, raises a question of the same sort, and it has stimulated much debate both inside and outside China. Zhao Ziyang was premier of China from 1980 to 1987, during which time he gained much credit for pushing China’s economy forward, and from 1987 to 1989 was general secretary of the Communist Party, when he became known for advocating reform of the political system. During the demonstrations at Tiananmen in 1989, Zhao advocated using “democracy and rule of law” to settle the crisis. But Party elder Deng Xiaoping, who held ultimate power and who was swayed by Premier Li Peng and others who saw nefarious intent within the student movement, chose repression.

After Deng had already ordered troops to surround Beijing, he summoned Zhao to ask that he concur in possible use of the military, but Zhao, well knowing that intransigence would cost him his position, declined. After the massacre on June 4, Zhao was charged with “splitting the Party” and “supporting chaos.” He then further sealed his fate by declining to write the kind of “self-criticism” that is customary in the Chinese Communist Party when one is disgraced. He spent the next sixteen years under house arrest at his home at No. 6, Wealth and Power Alley, Beijing. In 2004 he developed pulmonary fibrosis, and he died on January 17, 2005, at the age of eighty-five.

Meanwhile the Deng Xiaoping formula of “market yes, democracy no” marched forward under Zhao’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. China’s economy, military, and international influence have grown steadily while inequality, discontent, repression, and environmental degradation have worsened. All this is background for the counterfactual questions that frustrated Chinese reformers now ask about 1989. How would China be different if Zhao had stayed on? And how might he have done that?

In August 1991, when Boris Yeltsin climbed atop a tank in Moscow to defy a coup by Soviet hard-liners against Mikhail Gorbachev, and when Yeltsin won the support of a cheering crowd and helped to turn the tide against the hard-liners, some in China were led to ask why Zhao Ziyang could not have done a similar thing in 1989. There were about a million people in Tiananmen Square on May 17 of that year, and they were overwhelmingly on Zhao’s side of the political debate. A New York Times reporter heard a policeman shout, “The student movement is terrific! If the Government commands a crackdown, will I obey their order? No, I will go against it.”2 Large crowds of similarly inclined protesters were in the streets of nearly all of China’s provincial capitals.

But this flight of fancy is far-fetched. Zhao Ziyang by nature was circumspect, a bit timid, and hardly comparable to Yeltsin; moreover it is almost unthinkable that China’s military, whose command is steeped in personal loyalties, would have obeyed Zhao instead of Deng Xiaoping no matter how many people were in Tiananmen Square. But what if the protesting students had listened to the outspoken journalist Dai Qing and her delegation of liberal-minded intellectuals who urged them on May 14 to declare (partial) victory and go home? If they had, the crisis would not have come to a head and Zhao might have remained general secretary. Or what if—even assuming that the students remained in the square—Zhao had made some compromises with Deng in order to stay? How much of a difference could he have made?

The question has layers. To guess what Zhao might have achieved one needs first to estimate what he might have attempted, and that requires us to extrapolate how his thinking as general secretary might have developed after 1989. As a first, albeit imperfect, approximation, we can look at how Zhao’s thought actually developed even though he spent his post-1989 years observing China from house arrest. But on that question, until now, there has been extremely little to go on. We have a letter that Zhao wrote to China’s Politburo in 1997 asking (futilely) for a reconsideration of the verdict on the Tiananmen demonstrations. We have a revealing account of a two-hour talk that Zhao had with a friend named Wang Yangsheng in July 2004 and that Wang published in Hong Kong shortly after Zhao’s death. But that’s about it. Zhao released no memoirs, and a family member told me recently that “as far as I know, there is nothing left behind.” Hence Zong Fengming’s new book, containing 385 pages of records of conversations with Zhao Ziyang between 1991 and 2004, is an almost unique resource.

Zong, three months younger than Zhao, had known him a long time. They were both from Henan and had fought Japan together in the 1940s. Both had careers entirely within the Communist Party system. Zong was Party secretary at the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics until he retired in 1990. His book is based on more than a hundred visits that he made to Zhao’s house, which he entered at the sufferance of a squad of military police stationed inside the residence. Plainclothes police from State Security occupied the building directly across the alley, and from the second floor monitored comings and goings by camera. Periodic “renovations” of the Zhao compound kept electronic surveillance systems in shape. Zong was able to enter this police web in the guise of Zhao’s qigong (“breath exercise”) teacher. It also helped that Zong had played no role in the “turmoil” of 1989. The two elderly men talked outdoors in the courtyard, presumably to minimize electronic eavesdropping. Zong did not use a tape recorder and took no notes, but went home after each talk to write down what he could remember.

The book is arranged chronologically and is not tightly edited. The conversations, which retain their chatty flavor, are wide-ranging. They seem frank but not soul-baring. There no doubt were levels of Zhao’s thinking that died with him, or—if they have survived—live only in the memories of people extremely close to him.

Zhao’s family members say that Zhao was opposed to publishing the book because he feared that “inaccuracies” might result. Zong Fengming himself quotes Zhao as calling the talks “just some random thoughts and casual comments”—but whether this was from caution or from self-effacing convention is hard to say. Zhao’s long-time political secretary Bao Tong, in his own memoirs, writes that when Zong Fengming presented the conversation records to Zhao for review, Zhao did not even look at them but said, “Let Bao Tong decide what to do.” But Bao declined to edit them, fearful that his own taint (he had recently served a prison term for “counterrevolutionary agitation” and “leaking state secrets”) might only make things worse for Zhao and his family.

Bao clearly treasured the book, however, as is shown by his agreement to write a second preface to it. The first preface is by Li Rui, once a secretary to Mao Zedong and now another leading reformist thinker. With few exceptions the book has been championed by liberal-minded Chinese everywhere. Even Zhao’s family members, despite their reservations about accuracy, have expressed warm feelings toward Zong Fengming.

The state has taken a different view. Before the book appeared, a deputy chief of the Science, Technology, and Industry Commission of the State Council (the “leadership” authority for the university where Zong had worked) visited Zong at home, warning darkly that, in earlier times, his book would have been judged “counterrevolutionary,” and demanding that he hand over the manuscript. Zong said no. His book was published in Hong Kong and banned in China.

It is easy to see why top leaders were worried, because Zhao’s conversations address China’s problems with a depth and clarity that they have been accustomed to calling “dissident.” Zhao may not possess Fang Lizhi’s elegant reasoning or Liu Binyan’s magisterial grasp of Chinese society, but his basic outlook, especially near the end of his sixteen years of house arrest, bears close resemblance to theirs. His thinking does not show any radical breaks, but it does evolve as he watches developments and comes to see things in new ways.

He comes to see, for example, that democracy is not just an attractive luxury that a modern nation ought to want for its own sake but an indispensable condition for the survival of a healthy economy as well. He told Zong that, during the 1980s,

I thought that as long as we get economic reform right and the economy develops, the people will be satisfied and society will be stable.

But by 1991 he felt that

political reform must go forward in tandem with economic reform …[otherwise] a lot of social and political problems will appear.

Democratic supervision” is necessary. By 2004 he had concluded that “a market economy under a one-party system inevitably produces corruption” and that China’s economic growth was now “deformed.”

Zhao’s analysis of how China’s growth came to be distorted is very close to that of He Qinglian, whose 1998 book China’s Pitfall Zhao read in captivity.3 In Zhao’s words,

people who hold political power use that power to control resources and to turn the wealth of society into their own private wealth.

This happened inside a “black box,” beyond public supervision, and on “an enormous” scale. On September 18, 1998, Zhao tells Zong:

As the market economy grows, it leads to the marketization of power and the fungibility of money and power, which leads to large-scale swallowing up of state resources, chaotic capital formation, extortion, and blackmail. This, in turn, makes popular opinion boil and leads to the formation of a privileged class, a growing gap between rich and poor, and other social problems that only get worse the more they pile up.

Five years later Zhao observes:

The government seizes land from the people, pushing the price down to a minimum, then hands it over to developers who sell it at a huge mark-up. It also manipulates stocks and figures out how to siphon off society’s monetary resources—like the savings accounts of ordinary people—using the funds for public construction that stimulates internal demand and keeps growth high…. If people were free to shift their savings out of state banks, the savings would flow overseas and growth would end. There could be a rush on withdrawals and banks would be in crisis.

  1. 1

    Mao himself contributed to the parlor game on July 7, 1957. In addressing a group of writers and others in Shanghai, Mao said, according to someone who was present, “Lu Xun? He’d either be writing his stuff in prison or else saying nothing at all.” Huang Zongying, “Wo qinling Mao Zedong he Luo Ji’nan duihua,” Wenhui dushu zhoubao, December 6, 2002.

  2. 2

    Sheryl WuDunn, “A Million Chinese March, Adding Pressure for Change,” The New York Times, May 18, 1989.

  3. 3

    See Liu Binyan’s and my review of her book in The New York Review, October 8, 1998. Zhao Ziyang, although formally educated only through high school, became an assiduous reader during house arrest and seems to have had a special taste for “dissident” writers. He mentions He Qinglian, Wang Lixiong, Wu Guoguang, Gao Wenqian, Gordon Chang, and others in his chats with Zong.

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